Terrorists and Criminals Seeking Media Access Sparks Ethics Debate

By Batiaan Vanacker

When, if ever, is it justified for the media to provide a forum to criminals and terrorists, and when, if ever, is it justified for journalists to cross the line between bystander and participant ? In Colorado Springs, a local TV station provided two dangerous fugitives free airtime in return for a peaceful surrender to authorities, while in Phoenix, a weekly newspaper published an interview with an alleged member of an environmentalist group responsible for setting eleven houses in Phoenix Preserve areas ablaze. Both events sparked debates in local and national media about the moral obligations of media towards their community and society as a whole. In the early morning of January 24, 2001 Patrick Murphy Jr. and Donald Newbury surrendered to law enforcement officers after being cornered in a motel room in Colorado Springs. The two were the last of a gang of seven that escaped from a Texas prison 42 days earlier. The heavily armed fugitives submitted to authorities in exchange for a ten minute televised interview. KKTV Channel 11 agreed to do the interview. Twelve year veteran anchor Said Singer interviewed the escapees by phone while sitting in an office at the motel. During the interview, the two refugees expressed their discontent with the Texas penal system. At the conclusion, they walked out unarmed and surrendered.

While Singer and the police were congratulating one another for the successful containment of a potentially explosive situation, others expressed concern about the ethical boundaries crossed by KKTV. Critics said that the television station should not have become an active participant in the event. According to Joanne Ostrow of The Denver Post, Singer's involvement "undermines his journalistic credibility and that of the media generally." Others claimed that in situations like this, where human lives are at stake, journalism ethics are trumped by the greater good for society. This argument was also used to justify the fact that media succumbed to the pressure from criminals to provide them with a forum. A similar rationale contributed to the decision of The Washington Post and the The New York Times to publish the Unabomber's manifesto in 1995. Critics, such as Marvin Kalb, then-director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University, maintain that the media should not yield to any of these pressures, even if human lives are at stake.

Similar issues arose over an interview published January 24 in the Phoenix New Times. The source, who had contacted the alternative weekly, was member of an environmentalist group claiming to be responsible for setting fire to eleven house construction sites in the Phoenix Preserve areas during the last three years. The group's actions are in protest of housing development and an attempt to influence public opinion in favor of growth restrictions. The self-proclaimed arsonist concealed his identity during the interview. After the interview, the Phoenix New Times was criticized for providing a forum to a confessed criminal, rather than turning him over to the police . Scores of angry letters from citizens accusing the newspaper of letting its community down arrived on the editor's desk: " The New Times had the opportunity to assist the public in solving and stopping these crimes, and intentionally chose not to do so. That does not bode well for New Times portraying itself as being an asset or watchdog to the community" one person wrote. Other journalists in the Phoenix area criticized the interview. In an editorial, Steve Wilson of The Arizona Republic called upon the Phoenix New Times to identify its source: "The best journalists I know don't share the tunnel vision at New Times about protecting sources no matter what. They feel a responsibility to weigh what's in the best interest of their profession against what's in the best interest of their community.....There are some instances when doing what's right requires placing civic duty ahead of journalistic duty."

The newspaper defended its actions by stressing the role of journalists as independent reporters of facts, the importance of keeping promises to sources and the necessity of keeping a healthy distance between media and law enforcement. It called its colleagues who had condemned its actions "reactionaries [who] bend to the prevailing breezes of popular sentiment, to the detriment of their profession." Adding insult to injury, the newspaper was also subpoenaed by the County Attorney, demanding reporter James Hibberd's notes and other information that might help identify the arsonist. Hibberd had already cooperated with detectives by providing them with some information, such as parts of the interview that did not appear in print, but was not willing to turn over his notes or to work with a sketch artist.

Judge Galati, of the Superior Court of Maricopa County sided with the newspaper, ruling that the arsonist was a confidential source and that under the well established Arizona shield law (A.R.S. section12-2237) the newspaper could not be forced to reveal information that might help identify him. Although Galati made clear that his ruling did not constitute endorsement of the newspaper's actions, he also added a caveat in his opinion, stating that "a free press in a free society properly exercises its prerogatives without regard to whether any official in any branch of government 'approves.'"

Another question is whether or not Hibberd should have helped the authorities in the first place. Prosecutors argued that by doing so Hibberd waived his right to protect his source. Silha Professor Jane Kirtley is skeptical of Hibberd's cooperation with the detectives: "...you're either a journalist or an investigator; you can't be both and maintain your integrity."

These two recent cases and the debates they have sparked are a clear illustration of the lack of consensus regarding exactly what task the media ought to fulfill in society. On the one hand, a communitarian argument states that journalists are part of society and should serve its greater good. The libertarian perspective, on the other hand, considers the media to be a distinct pillar in society, whose principles and loyalties can not always be the same as those of law enforcement or civil society.

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This page contains a single entry by cla published on November 13, 2009 10:44 AM.

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